Hebrews: The Better Covenant

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“I promise.” There was a time when those two words meant something. When you could count on the person and the pledge. A couple stood before “God and these witnesses” to declare their life-long love. A politician made campaign promises that ensured his election, and his supporters could depend on the word of their elected official. A prospective employee agreed to a salary and benefits in exchange for faithful, dependable, service. All of these are the pattern of a covenant and covenant is the foundation of the relationship between God and man.

A covenant involves three people (or people groups) – two parties who wish to make an agreement of mutual benefit and a mediator to bring them to agreeable terms.  The covenant would stand as long as both parties lived and fulfilled their responsibilities. God made a covenant with Adam and Eve, first to allow them to rule over the earth (Gen 1:26), and then, after their sin, to bring a redeemer to crush their enemy (Gen 3:15). He made a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the earth with a flood (Gen 9:15). His covenant with Abraham was for his descendants to possess the land of Canaan (Gen 17:8). He made a covenant with Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai which involved a host of laws. He also made a covenant with David that his descendants would always sit on the throne of Israel, including One who would rule over an eternal kingdom ( 2 Sam 7:1-16). All of those covenants except one were dependant solely on the faithfulness of God. The Mosaic covenant demanded obedience from the people for God’s blessings and promised curses for disobedience.

The writer of Hebrews said the old covenant was perfect, but “God found fault with the people,” (Heb 8:8) because they were unable to maintain obedience. Rather than give up on them, he determined to “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (v. 8). It was a covenant of forgiveness (v. 12) and of the Holy Spirit. The writer quoted Jeremiah saying, “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time . . . I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people . . . and they will all know me” (v. 10,11).

While Moses was the mediator between God and Israel, Jesus Christ is the mediator between a holy God and sinful humanity – and the covenant was sealed with His blood. This covenant will never become “obsolete” and it will never “disappear” (v. 13) because its foundation is the obedience of Christ, not man.  Beloved, it’s not up to you. It’s up to Him, and He is forever faithful.

Mary’s Treasure

I love Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth because, according to church tradition, it is Mary’s own recollections. Only Mary could recall intimate details about Gabriel’s visit the remarkable announcement: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (vs. 31-32). She remembered her question “How will this be since I am a virgin?” (v. 34), and the angel’s reply about the Holy Spirit’s part in the conception.

She even included the report about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy and her aged cousin’s joyful greeting, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed I the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (vs. 42, 43). And “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (v. 45). She remembered the song she sang: My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior . . .”  (vs. 46-55).

Mary was the one who included Caesar Augustus’ decree that sent them to Bethlehem where her Son was born among the beasts of domestic life, bound up in rags, and laid to sleep in the animal’s feed trough.

Mary told about the shepherds who surely reported the angel’s proclamation to the parents. And the angel’s song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (2:14). Mary also remembered when Jesus was presented in the temple according to the law and the old man and woman who spoke powerfully about her son (2:25-38). Mary remembered Jesus when he was twelve years old, being separated from her and Joseph, and how He amazed the Jewish teachers by speaking with wisdom and authority beyond His years (2:41-50). And he amazed His mother by answering her scolding by saying, “Did you know I had to be in my Father’s house? (v. 49). Oh, how I wish Luke had picked her memory for more details of His childhood – clearly He was no ordinary child. Or maybe He was and the details are much the same as your childhood and mine.

Luke said that Mary, “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). I’m so glad she did because we have the most detailed, intimate account of our Savior’s birth and early glimpses of His ministry. Here’s my question for us both: What marvelous things has God done for you? Have you treasured them up in your heart (or written them down in a journal)? When someone (a grandchild, perhaps) asks you about your relationship with Jesus you will be glad you did.

God is Here

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The boy stood looking at the writing on the angry man’s poster: GOD IS NOWHERE. When the man laid down his poster to step into the nearby café, the lad turned the poster over and wrote diligently.  The man came back to his spot on the sidewalk and the boy said, “You had a mistake on your poster, but it fixed it. He picked up the poster to read what the boy had written: GOD IS NOW HERE.

That is the whole point of the Christmas story.  The Bible shows us that God has continually drawn near to man.  In the garden, He had close and personal fellowship with Adam and Eve, walking through the Garden with them in the cool of the evening.  But sin broke that intimate fellowship, and a barrier was placed between God and man.  God commanded the Israelites to make a Tabernacle that He might come and dwell among His people, and He did for hundreds of years until again, the sin of the nation of Israel became so great that God withdrew from the Temple.  The Old Testament records many visitations of God to Abraham, Jacob, Daniel, and others who were devoted to Him.  But these were brief occasions, to impart a message or empower His servant for a specific act.  God desired a deeper communion with man.  And God had a plan.

The angel recalled the prophecy: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him called ‘Immanuel*’ which means ‘God with us’” (Matt 1:23).  Jesus brought God near to us as a tiny baby in Bethlehem, as a man proclaiming the Good News, as the sacrifice on the cross for our sins, and as the risen Lord.  Then He gave us His presence continually in His indwelling Holy Spirit.  Immanuel is with us in storms and darkness and trial and suffering.  He is with us in our times of doubt and fear and loneliness and emptiness.  The joy of Immanuel is knowing that there is no place we can go and no circumstance of life we will face that God is as near as your whispered prayer.  Jesus made Himself one of us that we might be with Him now and for eternity.

Beloved, I pray that the Joy of Immanuel is with you this Advent season.

* Some translations spell this word differently, the NIV uses Immanuel, the KJV uses Emmanuel – either way God is with us.

Boundaries

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We’ve had a gate at the entrance to our living room since Joy became mobile to keep her corralled and safe. It’s also there to keep her contained so that Nana can have some uninterrupted time to study. A couple of weeks ago the gate was removed and there was nothing to stop her from running into my study – which she did constantly. Now, you know, I love her dearly and I will never push her away or shut her out, but sometimes I’ve just got to dig into my books, especially now as I’m coming into the final paper for my graduate class. Last week the gate went back in. And you know what? She’s been a much calmer child. It’s like the gate gives her a measure of comfort and security. Children need boundaries. They actually feel safer when they know where the line is clearly marked for them.  I remember as a little girl standing in an open field saying, “I don’t know how far I can go and that scares me, cause I might go too far and get lost.”

Three things come to mind when I think about boundaries. First is the boundary of self-control, part of the fruit of the Spirit. Self-control is the internal brake that tells us to STOP before we go too far or get in too deep. Solomon said, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control” (Prov. 25:28). I know someone with no self-control and he suffers many harsh consequences because of it.

Then there is the Bible. While the Scriptures are about so much more than rules, it is full of healthy boundaries for our lives. Moses told the Israelites: “They are not just idle words for you, they are your life” (Deut. 32:47). The wise man builds his life on the Word of God.

But the most powerful boundary is the Holy Spirit. Paul said that “the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). The Spirit will always lead us to what pleases God and will pull back the reigns when we’re headed in the wrong direction.  The combination of the Word of God and the Spirit of God provides a strong boundary for the child of God.

Joy needed the security the gate provided. You and I need the security of boundaries around our lives. Strong walls lead to peace. Beloved, do you need to invest in some boundaries?

God is With You

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Bette Midler sang a song with the line: “God is watching us, from a distance.” In this age of “spirituality,” fewer and fewer people can testify to a close and personal relationship with God. Could Ms. Midler be right? Hardly.

Beloved, God has made a promise to you and me: “the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). He has promised, no matter how far we roam, He goes with us and will never leave us. He commanded the Israelites to build a tabernacle for Him, that He might dwell among His people. Jesus was God in frail human flesh who walked among the very ones He would give His life for. And He has sent His Holy Spirit to all who will believe in Christ for salvation; His indwelling presence to be with us through this earthly life.

Paul declares “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any power, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). God has vowed to always be with His people, and there is no power or force, or thing that can take us from His love. God is never distant from His beloved child. If you are in Christ, He can never separate Himself from you.

Pop songs are not theology; God is watching us, but not from a distance. He is watching us, caring for us, and loving us from within our own hearts, as He lives in us through His Holy Spirit. When you cannot detect His presence, You need only call His Name, for He is always with you.

The Goodness of God

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I’ve had this particular Bible since at least 1997. I know this because there are three dated notes beside a particular pair of verses – they are 1997, 2012, and 2018. I just pulled out a much older Bible and turned to that same spot and there was another date penned – Summer, 1987. It was a very hard year. My mom had died of cancer, our home had been repossessed, my husband was working out of state, and I was living in an unsafe environment. I began to experience almost daily panic attacks. I wasn’t walking closely with the Lord at the time, but I knew the Bible was a resource of peace, so I started reading the Psalms. And I found words of peace.

“Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him” (2:12).

“Thou, O Lord, are a shield for me; my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried unto the Lord with my voice, and He heard me out of His holy hill.” (3:3-4)

“I will lie down in peace and sleep, for You alone, O Lord make me dwell in safety” (4:8)

And there were so many more.

Then I came to the words God used to calm my heart.  And I continue to run to these verses when anxiety threatens to overwhelm me as it has lately. “I am still confident of this; I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” (27:13-14). Every time I read those words I remember what the Spirit said to me: “The goodness of the Lord is not just for heaven. It is yours now – in the land of the living. Trust God and wait for Him.” For every date that I have written beside those verses, God was indeed good to me. My trust has never been in vain.

Beloved, I don’t know your struggle. I don’t know what is keeping you up at night. But I know – without a doubt or hesitation – that God is good and He is trustworthy. I understand you may have a hard time accepting that in the dark place in which you find yourself. I can’t make you believe, but I can tell you that He has never failed me. And He will never fail you. Be strong and take heart and wait for Him. God is good.

Rock Solid Faith

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“We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:43).

A sinful woman encountered Jesus one day and an entire village was changed.  The Samaritan woman found Jesus at a well.  He told her who she was, and then He told her who He was.  She ran to her village and called her neighbors to meet the man who changed her life.  And they came.  And they believed.  Not because of what the woman said about Jesus, but because of what He said about Himself.  “Because of His words many more became believers” (v. 41).  Second-hand faith is not a sustaining faith.  We must hear and know Jesus for ourselves.

I am so grateful for my time as a seminary student.  That experience stretched my mind and my faith in ways I never imagined.  In seminary, I learned how to study the Bible for life, how to search out its treasures, and discern God’s truth.  I learned how to think critically.  Most of all, I was challenged to consider what I believe.  I looked at everything I believed and examined it carefully, scripturally, practically.  I found some things that needed to be challenged and changed, and some things that needed to be nailed down as the foundation of my faith. I no longer stand on what others told me about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the Church, and my faith, I stand on what I know is true and right.  I know what I believe and I believe what I know.

You don’t need to go to seminary to build a strong foundation of faith.  All you need is the Bible and the courage to examine your beliefs through God’s Word and His Spirit. You need to find out if what you believe is really true.  Because that’s the kind of faith that stands firm against the winds of the culture, against the “wisdom” of the world, against the threat of suffering, persecution, and death.  Do you really think the martyrs of old would have died for something they weren’t convinced was true?  Beloved, you need to be sure of your faith and your convictions. You need to be certain that you have a faith that’s worth living – and dying for.

Your Kingdom Come

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Yesterday I wrote about the Kingdom of God and today I want to take us back for another perspective, In that devotional we looked at how the Kingdom of God is a present reality and is within us through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Please understand that I am not and will never espouse a humanistic gospel. We are the carriers of the Kingdom which is present in God’s Spirit and as such, we bring the Kingdom to the world in which we live.

But what is “the Kingdom of God?” The best answer comes from the Lord’s Prayer which He taught to His disciples: “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).  This is not just a rote statement in Jesus’ prayer, it is an act of surrender.  Simply put, the Kingdom of God is where God’s will is done.

So then, what is God’s will?  I can tell you for certain it is bigger than your life and mine.  Paul said that God’s will is to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under the sovereign authority of Christ (ref. Ephesians 1:10). The ultimate purpose of all existence is the Lordship of Jesus Christ. All of history has been moving toward this one thing: the coronation of Jesus Christ as the King of kings with “authority, glory and sovereign power, everlasting dominion, and a kingdom that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).

When we pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, we are surrendering our will to the will of God and committing to being part of ushering in the Kingdom of God and Christ.  And when we “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), we are seeking His rule and reign in our lives. We are following the example of Jesus who said, “not my will but Yours will be done”

The Kingdom of God is now and not yet. The Kingdom of God is present in God’s people. The Kingdom of God is the will of God, and when we seek first the Kingdom of God, we are seeking to do His will. And when the Kingdom of God comes on earth, “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11). That, Beloved, is what the Kingdom in you is all about.

The Kingdom of God is . . .

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Sometimes when I’m reading the Bible the Holy Spirit will point His finger at a phrase like a divine highlighter. That signals me to start to dig and I always discover an unexpected treasure. This morning it was a single word. I was reading in the parables of Jesus in Matthew 20 and the Lord said, “For the kingdom of heaven is like . . .” Is. Not will be. Is. There is a theological principle called “the now and the not yet” and refers generally to prophesy. The idea is like looking at a mountain range from a distance. Some mountains are nearer and some are farther away, but they all appear to be the same from a remote vantage point. It’s only when you draw nearer that you see the difference.

Jesus taught a great deal about the Kingdom of God and Matthew recorded the phrase thirty-one times in his gospel. Five of those mentions have a future focus.  But get this: twenty-five times Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God as a present reality – as a Kingdom that “has come” or “is.” Not just something to look forward to “someday,”  but something that exists, something we can experience and live within now.  How could that be? Because Jesus is the Kingdom of God. When He drew His first breath in the musty stable, the Kingdom of God was present in the world. Okay, but Jesus is not here on earth anymore. But His Spirit is. Jesus said [the Spirit] lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). You and I, as believers in Christ Jesus, as His followers and friends, bring the Kingdom of God to the world in our generation through the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Kingdom of God is here and now – in you and in me. Wherever we go we take the Kingdom of God with us. Whatever we do we involve the Kingdom of God in it. Oh, that ought to give us a sober pause.

It also ought to give us a sense of purpose. Because we bear the Kingdom of God, we can bring the peace and love of God into this hurting and angry world. We can bring the gospel to the lost. We can bring hope to the hopeless. His rule and reign is here and now in us. The Kingdom of God is like . . . you, Beloved.

Dry Ground

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“O God, You are my God, earnestly I seek You; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).

“Lord, I just feel so dry, like the cracked ground of a desert,” I wrote in my prayer one day.  It was the best description of my life. My soul felt dry and my body was weary.  My spirit longed for Living Water.  In my parched state, I pleaded with God to send relief.

As He so often does, the Holy Spirit sent me on a “Biblical scavenger-hunt” to see what the Word has to say.  He took me to Exodus 14 where Moses, through the power of the Lord, caused the sea to part and the people crossed over “on dry ground.”  He took me to Joshua 3 where again the Israelites crossed the Jordan (at flood stage, mind you) by way of a divinely dried-up riverbed. They didn’t slug through mud and muck but walked on firm, dry land.  Then He took me to Ezekiel 37, where the prophet spoke the Word of the Lord and dry bones came to life again, with tendons and flesh and the breath of Life.  Finally, He took me to Isaiah 53 and reminded me that Jesus was called “a tender shoot, like a root out of dry ground,” (v. 2).

In all of these, He reminded me that dry seasons can be the gateway to the Promised Land.  They can precede a time of awakening and renewal, and they can actually become a place of growth.  I learned through these examples that surviving dry seasons requires perseverance, listening to the Word of God, and being humble and submissive before Him.  These are lifelines during these times when our hearts and our spirits are like a cracked desert.

Beloved, if you are in Christ, God will use even the dry seasons of your life to fulfill His plan and purpose.  You need not be afraid, but press in and press on.  There is Living Water in His Word and His Spirit.  He will send the refreshing you need.  Then “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.  It will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for Joy” (Isaiah 35:1). God will bring beauty to the desert, the wilderness, and your dry heart.